James Salter: Last Night

James Salter: Last Night

The main characters in James Salter's short-story collection Last Night run a tight gamut from the merely comfortable to the incredibly well-off, and almost all of them are either contemplating an infidelity, in the throes of an affair, or recovering from a love that's long since rotted. They're not exactly a ball of laughs, this crew. As penetrating as Salter's prose can be, his insights into behavior don't extend as far as the human capacity for humor— at least not in Last Night, where nearly every person on the page has been drained of any emotion save lust and regret. Most have been pared to fit Salter's rigid style, which bridges blunt-to-the-point-of-abstraction dialogue with terse-but-vivid descriptive passages. It's the kind of no-frills writing that could easily be confused for dry hackwork, if it weren't for lines like "a kind of shiver went through him, a frightened happiness, as when your name is called by the teacher."

Nevertheless, about half of the 10 stories in Last Night never develop beyond scattered points on some chart that only Salter knows in full. And their impenetrable sketchiness looks worse when held up to the brilliant light of the collection's best pieces. To be fair, it'd be hard for any story to match the nervous urgency and blood-chilling plot twists of the title tale, which describes the last supper of an assisted suicide, with special attention to how she perceives the laughter and chatter of restaurant-goers, and how "she was trying to imagine all of it tomorrow, without her being here to see it." The same kind of prosaically ominous tone shadows "Platinum," in which a happily married man cheats on his wife and continues making mistakes thereafter. And in "Palm Court," a stockbroker reunites with an old flame and reflects on the dozens of reasons they found not to stay together, none of which seem meaningful now that he's older and has made plenty more compromises. Nearly all the stories in Last Night are troubled by choices that seem perfectly reasonable at the time they're made, but that screw everything up for decades to come.

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